At Unbounded Robotics, Smart Compromises Bring Down Costs

When is one arm better than two? When you’re trying to build a mobile-manipulator robot that somebody can actually afford to buy.

One of the problems that kept PR2, a humanoid robot developed by Menlo Park, CA-based Willow Garage, from succeeding commercially was its $400,000 price tag. And one of the things that made PR2 so expensive was that it had two arms, each replete with a complex series of joints, motors, and sensors.

But as it turned out, most of the university labs and other institutions that bought PR2s never came up with applications that required both arms.

“I think there are 43 PR2s out there, and if you look at the cross section of all those universities, only three or four actually use two arms,” says Melonee Wise, who was the second employee hired at Willow Garage in 2006. It turns out, Wise says, that “you can do a lot of tasks with just one arm.”

And that, in short, is why UBR-1, the first robot from Wise’s new company Unbounded Robotics, is single-limbed. It’s one of the many engineering decisions and technology improvements that will allow the startup to sell UBR-1 for just $35,000.

Wise says one roboticist who programs robots to fold laundry—normally a job for two arms—told the company, “Your robot is so inexpensive that if I needed to have a second arm, I’d just buy a second robot.”

Today, Willow Garage is defunct, its employees having scattered to spinoffs such as Suitable Technologies, the Open Source Robotics Foundation, and Unbounded itself. And there’s a new recognition, Wise says, that robots won’t find their way into new niches until they can solve real problems at much lower cost than the expensive, research-oriented, all-purpose robots of the past.

UBR-1 is a compact, wheeled robot designed to work alongside humans in places like factories, warehouses, supermarkets, and elder-care facilities. Along with its fancy arm—which can pan, pitch, roll, and grip in ways that make a human arm seem clumsy—it’s got a full suite of imaging sensors and communications tools (check out Wise’s full demo in the video below). It’s versatile, but most of the jobs it can do don’t even exist yet, because its capabilities will be defined largely by its programming rather than its hardware.

“With robots, feature creep is so much more present than in some other fields,” Wise says. “There is always this desire to make a Swiss Army knife. But you have to make compromises, and those compromises directly impact the capabilities as well as the cost of the robot. We wanted to strike a good middle ground between building robots and writing software.”

The speed with which Unbounded Robotics brought UBR-1 to market is a sign of the four-person team’s focus on practical compromise, guided by careful market research (what Wise calls “need finding”) and thoughtful design. The company’s spinoff from Willow Garage was completed in January 2013. By October, Wise was showing off the first production version of UBR-1 at the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara, CA.

In a way, Wise and her co-founders—chief technology officer Michael Ferguson, lead mechanical engineer Eric Diehr, and lead systems engineer Derek King—have formed their new identity in direct reaction to their experiences at Willow Garage. Founded by ex-Googler Scott Hassan, Willow long aimed to build flexible platforms like PR2 and the open-source Robotic Operating System (ROS) that would help other robot builders accelerate their own efforts. Only in the last couple of years before it shut down did the company begin to focus on getting something to market.

In fact, in early 2012 Willow Garage CEO Steve Cousins had asked Wise, Ferguson, Diehr, and King to build a mobile robot that would be smaller, cheaper, and more affordable than PR2, and they’d built a prototype that met a number of important milestones. But by late 2012, Wise says, it still wasn’t clear how or when the new “PR2 mini” robot (my moniker, not Willow’s) would be marketed. “There was real excitement, and everyone felt like … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “At Unbounded Robotics, Smart Compromises Bring Down Costs”

  1. CrvenaZvezda says:

    Hope they really succeed! I personally would without thinking spend up to US $1500 for a laundry folding robot.